Nietzsche believed a good education from the “School of Hard Knocks”— not from any university—is a required form of character development.
Graduates of today’s formal educational institutions have learned some tools for knowledge acquisition, but they haven’t yet acquired true knowledge. True knowledge comes only from doing, learning and failing, preferably in the School of Hard Knocks.
Formal education, especially in a highly dogmatic and somewhat ossified society, is inversely correlated to truth-seekers. The more “education” you have, the more you believe you “know,” when, in fact, true knowledge comes from doing.
Nietzsche notes that education is “essentially the means of ruining the exceptions for the good of the rule.” And higher education is “essentially the means of directing taste against the exceptions for the good of the mediocre.”
In other words, education is meant to fundamentally enforce the current culture, society, and the powers that be. It is meant to educate you to prefer the status quo. It is meant to give you the false premise that you know something. Such an education to induce conformity in our youth is highly corrosive to their free will and ultimately corrosive to an open society.
As Nietzsche stated, “The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.”
Education in classrooms largely started with German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, when he wanted to build a training system for soldiers in the Prussian army. If you want to train infantry soldiers for battle in 19th century European ground wars, classroom training can be very effective. Bismarck’s educational system worked well, and the Prussian army forced the unification of Germany and created the German Empire.
Today, we are thankfully not fighting infantry battles in Europe. Even if we were, the education of a modern warrior would involve little classroom training and lots of experience in the field. Yet, classroom training lives on and has largely outlived its usefulness.
Graduating with a Harvard MBA is dangerous in that you might be inclined to believe you know how to run a business. This is not the case. Running a business requires experience—and experience requires failure.
A reporter once asked Walmart founder Sam Walton, “How did you become so successful?” Walton answered, “I’ve made a lot of good decisions.” When he was then asked how he learned to make good decisions, Walton replied, “By making a lot of bad decisions.”
Formal education is about studying and learning from what is already known. It is about following rules, procedures, schedules, and predetermined formats. Business is about navigating the unknown. It is about inventing and creating entirely in the absence of procedures and pre-determined formulas.
The best scholars in formal education know everything. The best business people assume they know nothing. In formal education, there is a clear demarcation between students and teachers. In business, the best leaders are always the students.
In 1872, Nietzsche presented a series of five lectures called “ On the Future of Educational Institutions.” He had no time for a higher education system determined “to make man into a machine by teaching him how to suffer being bored.” He believed “the doer alone learneth,” a nd “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
If you are not doing, learning, and failing, you are not getting stronger. In
fact, you might be getting weaker. Going to prison for up to seven years is not going to kill me; rather, it means, by definition, that it is going to make me stronger.
We learn so much from doing. And we stifle so much with formal education. Far too often, formal education is pampering and insulation from the experimentation and battles that build real knowledge and wisdom.
Thomas Edison (1847–1931), one of America’s greatest inventors and businessmen, spent only 12 weeks in school. Edison was a sickly child. When he finally got to school, his teacher pronounced him “difficult.” Edison’s mother, an accomplished teacher, took him out of school and taught him from home. It was the perfect education for this curious, energetic child. He developed a love and ability for independent learning that would propel him through life.
Edison also had a great gift of learning from experience. As he famously believed, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Edison “got his hands dirty.” When he was 12, he was selling newspapers on the Grand Trunk Railroad line. He soon created his own paper, The Grand Trunk Herald, and sold it to passengers. By 15, he had learned to operate a telegraph. For the next five years, he traveled through the Midwest reading, studying, and experimenting with electrical science in his spare time.
At 19, while working the night shift at The Associated Press in Kentucky, he made the most of his time by developing a method of thinking without biases, proving things to himself through objective examination and experimentation. By 22, he sold his first invent ion and earned enough money to devote himself to discovering needs and creating solutions. It is an education that is unthinkable for so many of us now, but we can see so clearly the lessons of perseverance, inquiry, experimentation, and innovation that Edison learned on the road.
Steve Jobs is another example. His formal education looks like a mess. He was labeled as “difficult” in elementary school, although his parents stood by him. He was a loner who was bullied in middle school. In high school, he was equally fascinated with electronics and literature. Jobs dropped out in his first semester at Reed College without tellin g his parents. He attended classes—famously, Robert Palladino’s calligraphy class—slept on the floor in friends’ dorm rooms, got money from returning Coke bottles and ate for free at the Hare Krishna temple. Formally, not a lot going on. Informally, Jobs was learning about electronics beside his father, a machinist, making personal connections that would found Apple, exploring ways of thinking, learning about digital technology and finding out what products sell.
Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, dropped out of Harvard in 1975 after a year to pursue his passion for coding. By 1981, Microsoft had a revenue of $16 million. It was what Gates learned from his own initiative and inquiry that made all the difference to his life. You know this for yourself. When you think back over the lessons you have learned in life, so many of them were in the doing; so many were outside formal classrooms and lessons.